I’ve been taking a little break from Aristotle this week to read more in the post-democracy theories in political science, and this literature is making me miss Aristotle. Not because it’s bad theory, by any means; it’s a very good set of ideas, quite useful for trying to understand planning, but, man, is it depressing. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it’s had that effect on me.
It’s particularly interesting during this presidential election season and the difficulties of mass deliberation via the Internet, where pundit after pundit has made broad statements about who should appeal to whom. These difficulties are too numerous to count, but one has simply been the tendency to confuse “splaining” with deliberation. The former is a cute term that has emerged from the resistance to power and privilege grabbing the role of “knower” and explaining to the lesser, marginal person what’s what because, of course, knowers know and dumb wommins and peoples with different skin tones and young peoples and old peoples just don’t know, not at all. Whether it’s liberals deciding that people who support Trump are idiots, Bernie Bros talking down to blacks about why they should like Bernie more than Hillary, or George Will condescending to Millennials who support Sanders because they “don’t remember the Soviet Union” as he conflates democratic socialism with Soviet-style communism…it’s all the same behavior, and it reflects a fundamental lack of humility on the part of the writer/speaker and a disrespect toward voters.
Deliberation, by contrast, involves exploration and reaching out to understand what other people know, what they understand, and how they view the candidates. Deliberation means taking responsibility for what you think candidates’ ideas represent and the consequences of those ideas for different policies and groups. I don’t think Donald Trump will work for working people, but others think he will. Why do they think that? I have no idea, but I would like to.
For the record, I do have major problems with the incivility Trump has brought into the campaign, and I can be very hard on civility as virtue in other contexts. The refrain we see quoted over and over about how Trump “Tells it like it is” strikes me as a juvenile and self-indulgent rationalization for “Trump hates all the people I do and I like that he has the power to insult them.” There is no political or social value to the slurs he has slung at women and people of color–none whatsoever. Liberty does not mean license, and nobody’s free speech is really impinged when a person is asked to be responsible, or kind, with what they say and how they say it. People running around the world whining about political correctness have done jack diddly to evidence that anybody has really suffered in any material way, let alone being jailed in the manner of real repression, from being asked to say “chair” instead of “chairman.”
Leaders should set a better tone than he has, no matter what you think about the policy implications of the ideas or the man himself. I loathed Ronald Reagen’s policies, but I admired what I saw of the man in his interpersonal conduct. I disliked many of Bill Clinton’s policies and disliked what I knew of him intensely. I didn’t like the way he seemed to treat people around him, at all.
I myself have wondered a great deal about Trump’s appeal, and I’ve not seen a single, convincing explanation from anybody–not from political science or popular press of “this is what his supporters are thinking.” The wonderful thing about perceived political outsiders, like Trump, is that you can make them into anything you want to in your mind. So the refrain of “he’ll do things differently” and “he won’t be beholden to elites” is fine, but we have no real idea what he will do as president because he doesn’t have a governing record to extrapolate from. We might try to import his managerial style from his business life into what we might envision him to be as a governing executive, but there are many instances of people who are successful leaders and managers in one context who do not flourish in other contexts.
One idea I have circled around has to do with all this reading in post-democracy. Celebrities tend to do very well in elections (not governance, but elections), whether it is Schwarzenegger, Reagen, Sonny Bono, Fred Grandy, Ben Jones, Jesse Ventura, or, now, Donald Trump. I am not clear why, but it may have to do with the ready-made platform of celebrity; I know less than I would like to about the phenomenon of celebrity politics. In a post-democratic America, in a Baudrilliardian sense of the word, people perhaps believe that elites govern, and that’s that, and whoever they elect to the “big chair” will be dropped into that mire–and thus, they perceive that it doesn’t matter who gets elected. At least with celebrities, that person is entertaining.